A little less than two months ago – the night this very blog was born as a matter of fact – at the Golden Globe Awards, Natalie Portman took a stand for equality by calling out the fact that all the nominees for Best Director were men. Never mind that she’s only done one feature film with a female director (and she was that director, though she’s also worked for women directors on short films and segments), it seemed odd to me that she of all people would complain about a lack of female leadership in Hollywood. This is the same woman who allowed her best known character to turn from a political mastermind and a kick-ass fighter into a giggle girl who cries then dies in the span of one trilogy, and who has played arm candy to Thor twice. Even her Oscar-winning turn in Black Swan basically boils down to her being a sexually repressed perfectionist dying for the approval of her mother.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been a fan of hers for almost 20 years, and I still think she was robbed of the Oscar last year for her role in Jackie, a role where she truly took command and had agency. But the accusation of sexism at that awards ceremony rang hollow. It was her version of Kanye’s little “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” moment.
So it is with that touch of skepticism that I went into Annihilation, the latest from Alex Garland, who directed the acclaimed Ex Machina, which I enjoyed, but was sort of “meh” on overall. That’s two reasons I’ve given you all so far to hate me. Let’s see if I can come up with more.
Anyway, Portman stars as Lena, a biologist who specializes in cell reproduction. Three years before the main events of the movie, a meteorite crashed into a lighthouse and caused “The Shimmer,” which essentially looks like the rainbow blur thingy on the back of the iPhone X in commercials. A year before the film, Portman’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) went into The Shimmer with his platoon, and only he came back, and he was not the same man when he did. So Lena takes it upon herself to join the latest, all-female (all scientist, as it’s pointed out – all the previous expeditions consisted of military men only, so naturally they failed) team to enter the expanding Shimmer and see what’s going on.
The team is identified as cannon fodder very early on. The film jumps back and forth from the main action to an interrogation from Benedict Wong of Lena after she escapes as the sole survivor. It’s not even a spoiler. She says flat out in the first five minutes that her entire team is dead. So right off the bat there’s no pathos, only the mildly intriguing mystery of what exact sci-fi device kills them all. The team is led by Dr. Ventress (because she’s a lady adventurer, you see!), played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who sounds like a surly drunk in all of her exposition dumps. Then there are three other self-described “damaged” people: a mother who lost a child, a recent graduate who cuts herself, and an alcoholic lesbian. Even if we weren’t told directly, these people are so clearly marked for death the instant we meet them that it’s more a matter of humor than suspense. The five then don their best Ghostbuster outfits and carry machine guns into the swamp (despite only Lena – a veteran – having any military training).
What follows is a standard-issue science fiction survival horror story with mutants being the main antagonist. One by one the ladies are picked off, just like their male predecessors. As it turns out, The Shimmer is scrambling the DNA of everything inside it, creating crossbreads of plants, animals, and other random stuff. In a moment of unintentional hilarity, Lena, again, a cellular biologist, examines a dead alligator with shark teeth and exclaims, “You can’t breed two different species!” Uh, the mule would beg to differ! That’s just one example of how the “science” part of “science fiction” gets lost in the haze here.
There are a few jumpscares here and there, but the main thread of the whole expedition is that it’s treated as a knowing suicide mission for all who volunteer. Ventress, as a psychologist, tries to chalk it up to mankind’s natural self-destructive tendencies, or as we say in layman’s terms, bullshit. Still, they press on, because they have to get to the lighthouse (I’m sure there’s a Virginia Woolf metaphor in there somewhere), to stop The Shimmer at all costs.
Now, the actual journey is a visual marvel for the most part. The border of The Shimmer looks cheesy, and some of the “monsters” look fake as hell, but there are some truly magnificent effects, particularly the plant mutations, the wave-like nature of some of the transformations, and a truly gory bit of improvised surgery we see in one scene. In fact, all the gore is at top level. I won’t go into too much detail to avoid spoiling, but there’s a scene late in the film where a monster roars with a human voice, and given what happens to one of the victims, you can kind of guess where that voice came from. Even the final secrets of The Shimmer are wonderfully, beautifully rendered. I wouldn’t be surprised if this got shortlisted or even nominated for Visual Effects next year. Ex Machina won that category, I can easily see a second win here.
The problem with the film overall is the impetus of this journey. For starters, Ventress tells Lena that they evacuated the area around the lighthouse, telling them it was a chemical spill. Okay, fine, but you’re telling me no one actually saw a goddamned meteorite strike the Earth? Really? No astronomers tracking the thing? No news outlets reporting on it? NASA was on vacation? Really?
And then there’s the reason for the suicide mission. It’s hinted early and confirmed late that Lena cheated on Kane with a colleague. She even says she “owes it” to her husband to go see what nearly killed him. So despite the rah-rah feminism, the only true impetus for this excursion into the eager jaws of death is to satisfy her guilt towards a man. Come on!
I’m not trying to sound misogynistic, or to criticize Portman’s feminist ideals, just noting that if you’re going to make a statement like that on live TV, you best come proper. To call out the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for alleged sexism and then immediately follow up with a movie where a bunch of women get killed because they’re all fucked up and you want to assuage your guilt towards a man? It just seems like she’s talking the talk but not walking the walk. This film could have been an amazing statement of agency and ability for women. Instead it’s a visually spectacular drudge through damsel in distress cliche. Maybe I just don’t get Alex Garland as a filmmaker. Maybe I just don’t get a lot of things.
Join the conversation in the comments below? Am I sexist bastard? Do I know nothing about film because I don’t drool over Ex Machina? Do you think I’m just trolling (spoiler: I’m not)? Let me know!